Alan Bennett is revered as a national treasure, held in high esteem for for his acting, plays, television and radio adaptations, films and books. With this in mind, expectation would determine The History Boys to be a solid, profound piece of cinema.
The film depicts eight highly intelligent history students in the north of England in the mid 1980s. Their headmaster becomes obsessed with sending the boys to the country's two finest universities and enlists a supply teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to intellectually coach the boys for the upcoming Oxbridge trials.
Irwin's unorthodox thinking helps the "history boys" develop their understanding of how education itself works and where it eventually leads. Interlinked is the theme of "what is history?" which is explored throughout the film. After all, can we be "taught" the so-called "truth" of an issue like the holocaust, or, as the film proposes, is it merely an elite interpretation of mankind's ugly past?
Irwin, Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) do their best to brief and teach the exceptionally clever young men. Throughout the process they have to deal with the boys' youthful arrogance, dissent and irrelevance.
Though there are some strong ideas throughout, Alan Bennett's script fails to really develop the characters. Posner (Samuel Barnett) is no more than two-dimensionally neurotic; Darkin (Dominic Cooper) is predictably cool, sexy and dangerous; and there's Rudge (Russell Tovey), the token sport-inclined straight-talking fool.
Poetry-spouting English master Hector, who brings nourishing facts and figures to the wannabes, is much more impressive. Though Griffiths' portrayal brings back memories of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I , he comes across as a charming and cultured eccentric.
Two years after The History Boys was originally performed at the Lytellton Theatre in London, the big screen version just seems half-baked. Sadly the poor, grainy feel of the production makes the film more akin to a BBC Two adaptation from 20 years ago.
Aside from the structural philosophy and little gems of dialogue, there is not enough to keep the film going for nearly two hours. Without the necessary goods, it just creaks along. Though watchable, The History Boys is not consistent with Bennett's reputation and certainly not in the same league as the excellent The Madness of King George .